On May 27th, in a shocking move, a joint US–Swiss operation arrested seven FIFA officials on corruption charges. More arrests and indictments followed, and to date eighteen people (including nine FIFA officials) and two corporations have been charged with various crimes. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has faced mounting criticism and the possibility of his own criminal indictment, but that did not stop him from winning reelection on May 29th (though he later announced that he will step down once new special elections take place, which will probably be in December or early 2016). It is abundantly clear that the corruption was widespread: cash was exchanged for votes in favor of hosting bids, votes in FIFA elections, and TV contracts and other sponsorship deals.
The arrests and Blatter’s resignation have been hailed important steps towards reforming FIFA, and they have also been seen as vindicating those who have called on FIFA to rescind the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively. But the main problem with the 2018 and 2022 World Cups is not that they were awarded illegitimately; it is that they were awarded to countries with serious human rights issues that should disqualify them from hosting (Qatar) or at least raise serious concerns (Russia) about their suitability as hosts. Russia’s gay rights issues are well known, and its fans are notorious for directing racist epithets and abuse at black players visiting from other countries. Qatar is building its World Cup stadiums with labor practices that amount to slavery and that have already caused thousands of deaths.
That is not to say that the arrests are meaningless; it’s good to address corruption! It was endemic within FIFA. The exchange of votes for favors or cash tainted the organization’s elections and selection of host countries, which likely kept worthy candidates out. A small number of FIFA executives also made a lot of money for themselves that should have gone elsewhere. During the period where FIFA vice president and president of the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), Jack Warner, allegedly received millions of dollars in bribes, the women’s soccer team from his home country, Trinidad and Tobago, was so underfunded that it could not afford to buy food before games. The team had to solicit donations via Twitter. Warner also allegedly stole money intended for the victims of the Haitian earthquake.
No one will miss these men when they go to prison. It is also hard to imagine missing Sepp Blatter, the man who, in addition to fostering the current climate of corruption, suggested that female soccer players wear shorter shorts to boost viewership and that racial abuse between players should be settled with a handshake. When criticized for the latter idea, Blatter posed for a photo in which he hugged a black man (South African politician Tokyo Sexwale) and considered the issue settled. He is not racist, you see: some of his best cynically constructed photo ops are black.
But these arrests will only force corruption to change its tactics, not eliminate it altogether. This is probably the end of bribes being routed through American banks and of people speaking freely to US FIFA executives about committing crimes without realizing that the executives are wearing wires. But it is no accident that FIFA is corrupt; international sports organizations are nearly always corrupt. When you have a situation where a large, powerful, wealthy country wants something very badly (say, a vote for their hosting bid) from a small, poor country, chances are they will find a way to get it. The International Olympic Committee has had issues with corruption (enough examples to generate a dedicated BuzzFeed listicle). The International Handball Federation has had issues with corruption (allegations of bribery and match-fixing). Even the World Chess Federation has had issues with corruption (allegations traded among two candidates for its presidency).
Cleaning up FIFA’s financial dealings will not safeguard it against problematic hosts. In 2002, following the Salt Lake City Olympics, the FBI uncovered corruption within the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Evidence of bribes was unearthed, powerful members of the IOC stepped down, and the move was hailed in much the same manner as the current FIFA indictments are being hailed now. Five years later, in 2007, the IOC selected Sochi to host the 2014 Olympics. No reports of money exchanged for votes surfaced, but the Russian mafia allegedly made some threats that helped derail Salzburg’s rival bid. The Sochi Olympics went forward with a hostile atmosphere for gay athletes and fans, massive misappropriation of construction funds, and the highest death count for construction workers of any recent tournament save Qatar’s upcoming World Cup.
Rich, powerful countries have many ways of exerting influence; a paper bag filled with nonconsecutive twenties is only one of them. UEFA president and former French national team star Michel Platini allegedly voted for Qatar 2022 after encouragement from Nicholas Sarkozy. Qataris subsequently invested millions in a French Sports TV station and bought Sarkozy’s favorite team, Paris Saint-Germain. Furthermore, there is always the chance that a host may seem appropriate when selected but only to prove itself unsuitable in any number of ways by the time the cup rolls around. A democratic Argentina was awarded the 1978 World Cup, but an Argentine military junta hosted it.
It has been suggested that FIFA will re-award the 2018 and 2022 Cups. This is possible, but unlikely. FIFA dislikes few things as much as it dislikes admitting mistakes. For example, the current women’s World Cup is being played on turf fields, which are inferior to and more dangerous than grass. This is happening even though a lawn care company offered to install grass for free, simply because putting in grass would require FIFA to admit it was a mistake to install turf in the first place. FIFA has never reawarded a tournament even in the face of military coups or problems with stadium readiness. The political and economic fallout from awarding and then rescinding cups would be tremendous, and both Russia and Qatar have already invested massive sums in preparing to host. The FIFA probe also shows that Russia and Qatar were not alone in using illegitimate means to conduct business. Graft was the modus operandi for all of FIFA, not just states we like to think of as corrupt, and it would be naive to assume that the same FIFA executives who demanded compensation for their vote this time around did not make the exact same demand on previous occasions.
The real task is to ensure that we do not have another host like Russia or Qatar or another cup where gay fans and players are unsafe, where players are likely to face racial abuse, or where stadiums are built on the bones and blood of migrant workers. Addressing corruption will not accomplish this task. Replacing the current selection process (the twenty-four FIFA vice presidents currently vote on host selections) with open voting for hosts (a popular reform suggestion) will not make things better. If anything, it may make things worse. After all, the executive committee has sometimes selected good hosts, and open voting from all member states has given us, among other things, five terms of President Blatter.
For guidance, we should look to FIFA’s one unambiguous political triumph, the success it trots out to distract us from its other failures: South Africa. FIFA levied some of the earliest sanctions against apartheid South Africa, beginning with the country’s suspension in 1964 and formal expulsion in 1976. While the 1964 suspension was solely due to discrimination and government interference within the South African FA, the 1976 expulsion stated that South Africa could not be readmitted into FIFA until apartheid was wholly dismantled.
There is compelling evidence that this had a real effect on South African reform. Some of the first organizations to integrate in the country were sports organizations attempting to reenter global competition. These tentative steps towards integrated sport became a rallying cry for further societal reform, as the influential anti-apartheid South African Council on Sports highlighted the inherent contradiction of integrated sport in a segregated society with its popular slogan, “no normal sport in an abnormal society.” Sport became a driving force for reform in South Africa and later became a powerful symbol of progress and reconciliation in post–apartheid society.
While credit must be given to the concerted efforts of activists both inside and outside South Africa, as well as to the efforts of João Havelange (Sepp Blatter’s mentor and predecessor), who leveraged anti-South Africa sentiment to win a FIFA electoral victory, the primary reason activism was successful in obtaining a ban on South African participation in FIFA was the fact that South African malfeasance could be directly tied to a violation of FIFA laws. The apartheid government directly interfered with the South African Football Association to restrict its membership and keep the national team segregated. This was a violation of FIFA’s rules, which do not permit governments of member states to meddle in their respective football associations. This enabled FIFA to take quick action. There was no need for arguments about the extent to which FIFA was responsible for political or human rights issues, there was no way for supporters of South Africa to decry the interference of FIFA in a domestic matter. The crucial stumbling blocks that prevented action on other occasions were eliminated.
The best way to improve FIFA, then, would be to call for a change in FIFA’s bylaws regarding the criteria required to host a tournament. Whereas current criteria for the suitability of prospective hosts focus on infrastructural readiness and willingness to distribute kickbacks, a new set of criteria should address human rights concerns and labor practices. The upcoming election, which will be the first in decades without an entrenched incumbent, and the current uproar over corruption provide the perfect opportunity to push for such reforms. We are at a unique moment where there is widespread acknowledgement of problems within FIFA and a bevy of potential candidates for the FIFA presidency all willing to adopt a reform platform given the right promises of support.
Choosing new criteria could be tricky, of course. Definitions of acceptable government behavior differ around the world, as do definitions of the acceptable treatment of ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and political dissidents. Without accepting a form of relativism that tolerates Uganda’s position on gay rights, it’s still necessary to recognize the limits of what sports can accomplish with respect to political reform.
Moreover, even if we did accept the standard liberal–west definition of acceptable behavior, there would still be problems. Sure, Qatar’s labor system is out of the question. But is China too authoritarian to have hosted the Olympics? Should Ukraine have been stripped of its 2012 European Championship co-hosting duties in 2012 following the politically motivated imprisonment of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko? That kept many politicians from attending the games, but it had no impact on the games themselves. And what about the US? Shouldn’t we be barred from international hosting until we close Guantánamo, withdraw from Afghanistan, and dismantle our domestic prison system? Every country is objectionable in the eyes of some other country, and overregulation puts the World Cup at risk of devolving into a geopolitical chessboard on which the world acts out political disputes via petty snubs. The tournament would just cycle through the few remaining uncontroversial host countries. Norway in 2026. Sweden in 2030. Canada in 2034. Norway, again, in 2038, but only because Sweden bowed out.
The answer I would seek, then, is a system that is limited to focusing on regulating rights and protections directly related to the event itself, while maintaining FIFA’s current commitment to spreading hosting rights and development funds to as many continents and confederations as possible. This would preserve the elements of the Blatter regime that were justifiably popular with the third world (providing access and funding to traditionally underserved countries and regions), while still addressing the issues at hand.
Laborers should not be subjected to unsafe or exploitative practices while constructing tournament infrastructure. FIFA could adopt the following policies in the pursuit of this goal. First, workers building tournament infrastructure may not be required to work under a kafala or similar system, in which migrant workers surrender their passports to their employers and may not leave the country or change jobs without permission, nor may imported forced labor of any kind be used. Second, on-site safety protections must be in line with first-world standards. Third, governments must document workplace accidents and fatalities and pay out compensation when appropriate.
In terms of human rights protections outside of labor concerns, the most effective approach is to frame these regulations in terms of protecting fans, players, and journalists. All players, fans, and journalists should be free to participate in, watch and attend, and report on the World Cup regardless of gender, race, creed, sexual orientation, etc. Much of this is already included in the FIFA charter but is limited to the behavior of individual football associations, ignoring the realities on the ground for players, fans, and the press in potential host countries. What does it matter if Qatar’s FA does not officially discriminate against gays when the government does so with extreme prejudice?
Besides simply including journalists and fans, these provisions could have defined minimums for behavior or legal protections established in the FIFA charter. Some potential standards might include free-speech protections for whistleblowers; protections for fans based on gender, religion, and sexual orientation; and a commitment to external oversight to ensure that such protections are being enforced. There should also be an official, independent system for overseeing complaints lodged against FIFA or host nations during tournaments.
Countries with less-than-ideal political systems would still end up hosting occasionally, but knowing that they would have to conform to preexisting codes of conduct would inhibit the most repressive from seeking hosting duties and potentially lead to some reform in others. Qatar has already begun reforming their labor practices in response to widespread criticism and pressure from FIFA, instituting fines for employers who withhold pay and banning work during the hottest hours of the day. When it wants to, FIFA can be very persuasive. However, real progress on more substantial reforms (such as eliminating the kafala system or preventing employers from seizing workers’ passports) has been slow in arriving or nonexistent.
Had there been preexisting conditions regarding labor practices in place, these reforms would have begun much earlier, gone further, and, most crucially, been subject to a review process that could ensure implementation, saving lives in the process. Such structures would also accelerate the process whereby activism and journalistic exposés produce real change. Instead of unactionable moral outrage and endless debates about standards, there would simply be laws that needed to be obeyed and consequences for those who broke them.